Tech me out to the ballgame: High-tech secrets of AT&T Park

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Major League Baseball sometimes resembles a vaudeville act from a bygone era. Organists still play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Some players still wear knickers, stirrups, and pinstripes. And even though Jim Leyland just retired, you can still find a few coaches with big, bushy mustaches lifted straight from the 1890s.

But those are just old-timey touches. It’s all part of baseball’s grand spectacle—carefully orchestrated theater intended to recall a kinder, simpler time. Major League Baseball has become a high-tech endeavor just like any other professional sport, and once you begin poking around in what’s really happening inside the ballpark, you begin to see just how profoundly technology has transformed our basic at-the-game experience.

So while you’re at your next ball game, munching on your third hot dog, keep in mind that an infantry is working behind the scenes to make sure you’re getting a seamless, modern spectacle on a par with the best of professional sports. And it all requires serious tech—more than you’d ever guess.

We spent weeks with our hometown team, the 2012 world champion San Francisco Giants, to learn more about how technology influences the operations of a pro ballpark. We found that behind every facet of the experience—from concessions to lawn care to instant replays on the scoreboard—high-tech gear is chugging away, making everything happen.

Pro baseball is definitely not the quaint pastime of yesteryear.

Home-field advantage

Throughout the season, the field operations team tenderly cares for the heart of the ballpark: the field. On home game days they start early—at about 8:00 a.m. for day games and 11:00 a.m. for night games. Old-school tools such as hand mowers, brooms, tractors, and nail boards are complemented by high-tech GPS systems and underground sensors.

And there’s more to the field than just dirt and grass. Under the surface is a complex field-maintenance system called SubAir.

If the field has too much moisture—after a heavy, unexpected rain, for example—SubAir’s vacuum can suck all of the excess water from the field to prevent puddling. Or, if the field is flattened out—say, during a special event that occurs in between home stands—the SubAir uses pressure to get oxygen flowing to the grass’s roots, fluffing up the turf to make the field playable again. SubAir can also eliminate the need to water the grass—perennial ryegrass interseeded into a Bermuda-grass base, to be exact—for the day, as the system can move moisture to spots that need it.

SubAir uses a vast network of subsurface pipes, and moves air and water using a 100-horsepower electric motor. The system also includes several in-ground sensors that track the soil’s nutrient and moisture levels, and SubAir’s software provides daily, monthly, and yearly statistics about said levels. Greg Elliott, the Giants’ director of field operations and agronomy, checks on the field’s status daily during baseball season to figure out what the surface needs before each game.

“SubAir takes the info from the field sensors, looks at real-time weather info, puts it all through an equation, then tells me how much to water,” says Elliott.

Dusty Trayer
Greg Elliott monitors the field's moisture levels through SubAir's software.

AT&T Park installed the SubAir system in 2011, following the Giants’ 2010 World Series win. This kind of tech does not come cheap—it was a $450,000 upgrade—and usually fields are designed around SubAir, instead of receiving a retrofit.

“Its ultimate goal is to eliminate variables and use less water,” says Elliott. Variables include puddles, dry spots, and grass diseases. Elliott likes the grass to maintain roughly a 17 percent moisture level, and SubAir tracks that for him.

When it comes to managing the dirt parts of the field, he uses a more traditional and low-tech approach. “So much of it is by feel,” he says. “I can tell what the dirt needs just by feeling it with my hands, testing it under my shoes.” Elliott keeps the dirt’s composition very consistent: 60 percent sand, 21 percent clay, and 19 percent silt.

That’s the (high-tech) ticket

For you, the fan, the high-tech baseball experience starts way before you get to the ballpark. The Giants currently boast 246 consecutive sold-out games, which means the team has been selling some 3.4 million tickets per season since 2011. It’s able to do so thanks to a dynamic ticket-pricing system. Yes, the process is much more complex than just picking the seats you want at a fixed price.

Russ Stanley, managing vice president of ticket sales and services for the Giants, explains that ticket prices for the Giants change daily based on certain conditions, hence the term “dynamic.” The ticket system uses a program called Qcue to manage ticket-sales data, and it spits out suggested ticket prices for every game based on 120 criteria. Stanley looks at the number of seats already sold, the recent performance of the team, the star power of the opposing team, weather conditions, and whether a special event or giveaway is planned for fans.

“All of the data is presented to us in a way that’s easy to interpret,” says Stanley. An algorithm in Qcue sets a price, but Stanley and his team have the final say. That’s why you’ll see cheap $10 ticket deals for midweek games, he says, and much pricier options for games in which the opponent is a hot team.

Mike Homnick

Season-ticket holders can use MLB’s “My Tickets” online portal to manage their seats and transfer tickets that they can’t use themselves. On the site, they can sell tickets directly through StubHub, transfer tickets to a friend, or release them to a charity. Stanley estimates that season-ticket holders own about 75 percent of the seats at AT&T Park, so he has worked hard with MLB to ensure that there’s a simple process for transferring tickets.

“We wouldn’t be able to keep these fans if it wasn’t for the tech tools that make it so easy,” Stanley says.

Fans have the choice of a traditional paper ticket, a printable ticket, or an e-ticket on their mobile phone. iPhone-carrying fans can opt for a Passbook ticket. The turnstile ticket scanners, which have been in operation since 2012, recognize all of these ticket types.

Striking out foul fans

To most fans, the ballpark is a happy place, complete with cheering, high-fives, and a license to eat junk food without guilt. But to Jorge Costa, it’s more of a battlefield. Costa is the Giants’ senior vice president of ballpark operations, and it’s his job to keep everyone safe at the park. This job requires structure, planning, anticipation, and the constant gathering of information on city, state, and national security conditions.

“Tech allows us to keep up with the latest security trends,” says Costa. “There’s still a human being behind the tech, but using these resources makes me better at my job.”

Costa has his finger on the pulse of the latest security tech, and he constantly reevaluates his strategy over the course of a season. But his main strategy involves surveillance and an understated security profile that is always aware and available to help.

Mike Homnick
Every fan gets wanded during high-security games.

Before each game, the security team meets to discuss strategy for the day. The group goes over security wanding for metal detection at the gate, and LG Optimus V smartphones are distributed to security personnel, deployed in two-person teams. The devices run an overhauled version of Android 2.2 that the staffers use to text or message the park’s security hub. Eight of the teams receive iPads instead of Androids, but they use the tablets for the same purposes.

When an incident occurs in or around the ballpark—for example, when a fan slips on the stairs or a drunken brawl breaks out in the bleachers—security logs the incident through these mobile devices, and the note transmits to central command. The devices run a software program that features various touchscreen buttons for different types of incidents, so a security member simply taps icons to signal the control room and file a report. The entire system is called ISS.

Mike Homnick
The security team uses LG Optimus V smartphones with an overhauled version of Android 2.2 to log incidents.

Depending on the nature of the incident, the flare-up is assigned a category (for example, “injury” or “outside alcohol”) and security personnel in the control center decide who is best equipped to handle the problem, be it medical specialists, SFPD, or the Giants’ security team. Large display boards in the security control center show all logged incidents, coded red for incoming, yellow for in progress, and green for resolved. The control center then dispatches backup right away to address the issue.

In large letters near the Jumbotron, you’ll also see a number that fans can text at any time throughout the game. Type “fair” if you have a question, or “foul” if you’d like to report unruly behavior that’s disrupting the game for you. Costa says there’s an average of 100 fair/foul texts per game. It’s a great system for fans to take an active role in improving their ballpark experience.

Wi-Fi grand slam

Back at the turnstiles, fans are allowed into the park about an hour and a half before the first pitch. Tickets are scanned, and fans are directed to their seats via signage around the stadium. But what if you want to locate a restroom, a concession stand, or a merchandise shop before you reach your seat?

You guessed it: There’s an app for that—MLB’s At the Ballpark app. You also use the app to buy game tickets, or to upgrade to better seats when you’re at the stadium. Select parks are testing turn-by-turn directions for locating your seat through iOS devices, and although AT&T Park didn’t have that option during the 2013 season, we’ll likely see it in 2014.

Use At Bat to catch live footage and replays of the game. At Bat is the second official MLB app, and fans use it at the park to watch extra footage and instant replays of the game from different angles. If another game is happening simultaneously, you can check scores and view highlights of that game too.

For these apps to work well, the ballpark needs Wi-Fi—and a bad Wi-Fi connection would certainly reflect poorly on AT&T, a telecommunications company. Giants senior vice president and chief information officer Bill Schlough says he’s determined to make Internet connection and speed a priority around the park.

“Fans shouldn’t care how they’re connected, just that they’re connected,” Schlough says.

AT&T Park offers free Wi-Fi service, for which it has installed 931 wireless access points around the stadium. The devices are hidden around the ballpark, painted in inconspicuous colors to make them blend in with their surroundings. You’ll find them in the bleachers, under chairs, and overhead, hidden on ceiling beams and supports. Each section of seats has at least one dedicated hotspot.

Mike Homnick
Look high, look low. Wi-Fi hotspots are everywhere.

You’ll find good LTE coverage in the park too: AT&T Park has 196 dedicated 3G/LTE hotspots for cellular coverage, dedicated to amplifying the service for baseball fans. These are “neutral-host” antennas, so you’ll get solid coverage no matter what carrier you’re with. (One of my visits was during a sold-out game. I had no trouble connecting to AT&T Park’s Wi-Fi network, and I was able to stream videos with no lag.)

The number of fans who connect to Wi-Fi while at the park is an astonishing 10,731 per game, not including cellular-data connections. (AT&T Park has 41,000 seats.) According to Schlough, fans transfer 308GB of data per game, with 183GB in downloads (streaming and gathering content) and 125GB in uploads (sharing and posting to social media).

The ballpark’s Wi-Fi infrastructure was put to the test during a day game on Sunday, September 8, which happened to overlap with the first regular-season NFL game. Voracious football fans streamed live NFL footage while watching the Giants game at AT&T Park. Downloads hit 262GB that day.

Behind the scoreboard sits the @Cafe, a new addition to AT&T Park for the 2013 season. The @Cafe is the Giants’ social media hub, where a dedicated team of social media gurus tracks trending tags and themes across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Fans can stop by, grab a latte, and check out a live feed of all Giants-related posts, with popular and trending posts projected onto the café’s walls.

Mike Homnick
The @Cafe tracks social media tags about the Giants in real time.

If you notice your phone is running low on juice while you’re en route to your seat, you can stop at one of ten phone-charging stations. Each station has 16 chargers for various devices, so you can plug in and juice up for a few minutes. If you’re in need of a serious charge, swing by the AT&T Digital Lounge to drop your phone off to charge: The station is manned, so your device should be in good hands while you enjoy the game. Luxury suites and boxes are equipped with four chargers each. Between all of these charging stations, there are enough ports to charge 424 devices at once.

Peanuts and Cracker Jack

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